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Turning Up the Heat
Marty Burns
November 29, 1999
Despite rules changes that were supposed to doom rugged teams like Miami, Pat Riley's crew is off to its hottest start
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November 29, 1999

Turning Up The Heat

Despite rules changes that were supposed to doom rugged teams like Miami, Pat Riley's crew is off to its hottest start

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*Stats through Sunday's games
Source: Elias Sports Bureau

It's an hour into a routine Miami Heat practice, and coach Pat Riley is in center Alonzo Mourning's face. "Up! Down! Side! Side!" Riley barks, commanding Mourning to move the ball as he demonstrates for Heat players his newest technique, the hover. Hunkered in a defensive stance, waving his hands furiously to trace Mourning's ball fakes and jabbing his feet in precisely choreographed movements, Riley appears for a moment like a crazed man performing jujitsu on an imaginary foe. "Hovering is something we came up with because of the new rules. Basically it's short for Hand Over Ball," Riley explains later. "It's a form of ball pressure. You can't touch anymore, so you've got to hover."

Leave it to Riley to find new ways to torture opposing ball handlers. First with the New York Knicks and then in Miami, he coaxed his perimeter defenders to the legal limit when applying a hand check or a forearm to the back. Now, with rules changes that among other things prohibit contact above the foul line, Riley is drilling his troops to put their hands in the most annoying spot allowed—right over the ball, so that a shooter can't raise it cleanly to take a jump shot or make a pass. "He's always prepared," guard Dan Majerle says of Riley. "With the new rules he knew we needed to change the way we played, so he did something about it."

The 54-year-old Riley has not simply adjusted to the new-look NBA, he's become its poster boy. Defying the predictions of those who said the clutch-and-grab Heat would flounder because of changes designed to create a more wide-open game—including limiting post-ups to five seconds, cracking down on illegal screens and physical play off the ball, and liberalizing illegal defense rules to discourage isolation plays—Riley's team has prospered. With a 110-92 victory over the Boston Celtics last Saturday at Miami Arena, the Heat ran its Eastern Conference-leading record to 8-2, the best start in the franchise's 12-year history.

Even more surprising, Riley has brought a touch of Showtime to South Florida with what he calls the Go Game. At week's end the once offensively challenged Heat was scoring 106.2 points a game, second highest in the league, and an astonishing average of 17.2 points more than it scored last season using roughly the same personnel. With point guard Tim Hardaway pushing the ball at every opportunity, forward Jamal Mashburn flourishing on the wings and the fleet Mourning beating opposing centers down the floor for easy baskets, Miami has cracked the 100-point barrier in six games. It did so just four times in 50 games last year. "I see their scores in the paper, and it's remarkable," says Seattle SuperSonics guard Brent Barry, who spent part of the '97-98 season with the Heat. "But I'm not real surprised. Pat Riley did the same thing in L.A."

Riley's rules-driven transformation of the Heat mirrors the changes going on throughout the NBA, which in recent years has been plagued by low-scoring games that more closely resembled WWF Smack-down! than basketball. So far the changes have proved as effective as a Tim Duncan up-and-under move (chart, page 50). Last year only one team averaged 100 points or more; through Sunday 12 were scoring in triple figures this season. True, there are complaints about excessive whistle-blowing—Charlotte Hornets forward Anthony Mason recently grumbled that there's more contact allowed in the WNBA—but the consensus is that the game has a new vibrancy. Perhaps the best effect of the rules changes has been the decrease in clear-outs, in which four players stand around and watch one teammate attempt to make a basket. "There's so much more movement," says Sonics coach Paul Westphal. "It's like everybody can breathe again. It's definitely a more enjoyable game to watch."

Riley's response was certainly ahead of the curve, even though, as a member of a special NBA committee convened in June to explore ways to boost scoring, he had argued vehemently against the revised rules. After their passage, however, he and his staff immediately caucused on how best to adapt, and by the time Heat players showed up for voluntary workouts in July, the core of a new system was in place. Riley revamped the team's conditioning program, putting less emphasis on weightlifting and more on footwork and aerobic exercises. On offense the Heat would seek to take greater advantage of the open-court skills of such players as Hardaway and Mash-burn. On defense it would try to funnel penetrators inside toward shot blockers like Mourning and forward P.J. Brown.

Riley also developed specific tactics designed to exploit the rules changes. Figuring officials would be on the lookout for hand checks, for example, he drilled his players on driving aggressively into the midsection of a defender, which would force him to use his hands to protect himself. On defense Riley introduced them to hovering, showing them how to get up in the ball handler's face and place their hands in certain positions, depending on the location of the ball. As a teaching tool he even had a chart made with all the proper hand positions shown on it, like an Arthur Murray dance lesson, only with handprints instead of shoeprints.

During training camp Riley also unveiled his up-tempo Go Game, in which all players, not just Hardaway, were encouraged to push the ball up the floor and swing it to the open man for a quick shot. (Several other teams that have flourished under the new rules—the Sonics, the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timber-wolves, to name a few—have made a similar adjustment.) Suddenly big men such as Mourning and Brown were swooping downcourt to cash in on easy opportunities. Perhaps catching foes off guard, Miami had outscored opponents 322-225 in the first quarter through Sunday, including a 67-22 edge in fast-break points. "You can see it in their faces: They're not expecting us to run," shooting guard Voshon Lenard says. "They have this look like they expect us to be a half-court team, and before you know it they're down 20."

The return of Mashburn, who missed much of the past two seasons with knee and thumb injuries, has given Miami a versatile and lethal scoring option. A gifted spot-up shooter, ball handler and finisher, Mashburn was averaging 20.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3-9 assists per night at week's end, and his productivity had enabled Riley to start Majerle and use Lenard as a scorer off the bench. Mourning has continued his MVP-caliber play of a year ago, while Hardaway has, for now at least, shown that he has overcome the knee ailments that plagued him last season. "This is a lot of fun," Hardaway says. "When you run, it makes you work even harder on the defensive end."

Miami's approach may be different, but it has hardly abandoned its defense-first mentality. In a 98-93 victory at Philadelphia last week the Heat held 76ers scoring machine Allen Iverson to 8-of-27 shooting and sealed the victory when Mourning blocked two straight shots by forward George Lynch on the same possession, leading to a fast-break basket by Majerle. Miami has limited its opponents' field goal accuracy to just 42.0%, second lowest in the NBA, while making life miserable for such big-time scorers as Iverson, New York's Latrell Sprewell (2 of 14), Boston's Paul Pierce (4 of 16), the Dallas Mavericks' Michael Finley (2 of 8) and the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller (3 of 10). "They still play great defense," Sixers coach Larry Brown says. "They still take pride in that part of the game."

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